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James Pickett’s favorite movie is Flash of Genius, the quasi-biographical film about inventor Robert Kearns, who spent the last decades of his life proving that his invention had been stolen.
Pickett, 54, says he drove from his Temple Hills home all the way to Chantilly to see the film during its brief 2008 theatrical run. In the couple of years since, he’s given copies of the DVD to friends and family.
“I watched it again today,” Pickett told me earlier this week.
The way Pickett sees things, Kearns’ story is his story, too. Only instead of a novel automotive part—Kearns invented intermittent windshield wipers—Pickett lays claim to a new version of checkers. He wants credit as the first guy to use football helmets in place of standard pieces in the age-old board game.
Twenty five years ago, Pickett says, he concocted plans to put NFL team logos on the helmets/checkers: Cowboys vs. Redskins was his marquee product. He also planned to produce versions featuring professional baseball, basketball, and hockey logos, followed later by college teams.
If the system had worked, he says, Sports Checkers would have made him a wealthy man.
“I’d be in some plane flying somewhere around the world now instead of talking to you,” he says.
Inventors claim their inventions have been stolen at about the same rate jailbirds claim they’re innocent. Pickett has compiled a two-inch stack of papers that includes 25 years’ worth of paperwork. There are bills that show phone calls to toy manufacturers, lawyer letters, programs from toy conventions, and patent and copyright applications that he says prove that his brainchild was kidnapped.
His pile also includes recent printouts of games available from Amazon.com, where White Sox Checkers ($29.95), LSU Checkers ($29.99), and Dolphins Checkers ($25.94) can be had. He also has a Spilsbury catalog offering NFL Checkers, with pieces in various teams’ colors, for $29.99.
Pickett has nothing to do with the licensing or manufacture of any of those. Or the profits.
To the casual observer, the “evidence” only proves that Pickett has put an awful lot of effort into demonstrating that he had the idea first. Richard Levy, the guy behind the Furby, told NPR in 2002 that an idea is “is only 10 percent” of toy inventing. The rest, Levy said, is marketing.
Don’t bother trying to convince Pickett he can’t win.
“I’m not giving up,” he says.
By some accounts, checkers dates back to 11th-century France—meaning it had been around for about 1,000 years by the time Pickett put his spin on it. That came in the mid-1980s, when he was in his first decade of what is now a 34-year career with the U.S. Postal Service. Pickett and co-workers played checkers during their downtime at USPS’ Brentwood facility.
Pickett had been a hobbyist inventor since his days at McKinley Technical High School. None of his mousetraps ever earned him his fortune. But he did have some success marketing what he called “trophy lamps,” which added light fixtures and shades to the kind of trophies given out by bowling leagues. He was paid $900 to make one for Rosa Parks to mark a 1980s D.C. appearance by the civil rights icon.
Among the large roster of early Pickett creations that didn’t generate any buzz: the “helmet bank.” In the late 1970s, he’d bought 4,000 miniature plastic helmets of the sort then found in gumball machines. Half were Redskins helmets, half Cowboys. He’d slap mini-helmets on small piggy banks, then sell the wares outside RFK Stadium.
“But I never got a business license for that, and that didn’t really work,” he says.
After that particular flop, several garbage bags full of unused helmets sat for years in his apartment. Then one day, while Pickett was playing checkers at work, a piece went missing. He figured one of his surplus Redskins helmets would make a fine substitute.
“Then I had my own flash of genius,” he says.
His idea: Put a whole team of Redskins helmets on one side, and a squad of Cowboys helmets on the other. The only difference between standard checkers and his version: Since mini-helmets don’t stack well, kings were signified by placing a plastic bubble on top of the piece.
In 1987, Pickett took a prototype game to the Toy Fair, the mammoth annual amusement-industry gathering in New York. (The 108th rendition of the convention was held last week.) Pickett says a representative from Marino Games, a now-defunct Buffalo-based board game company, took particular interest. Marino’s featured product was the Buffalo Style Chicken Wing Game, in which players took turns completing orders for the city’s signature dish.
Pickett says he gave the Marino rep a version of his game. But Marino broke off talks without making a deal. By then, Pickett had filed for copyright protections. Artist renderings he’d commissioned also included games featuring major soft drink brands and cartoon and TV show characters. Yet he never found any takers.
Pickett had all but given up ever becoming the king of checkers by Christmas 1994, when he was reading the JCPenney insert in The Washington Post and spotted an offer for something called Redskins Checkers. It looked familiar.
He ran down to the department store and plunked down $25 for a game. Sure enough, the game of his dreams was on the market. Only somebody else was putting it out.
“I was shocked,” he says. “I’d moved on.”
Redskins Checkers was marketed by Big League Promotions, a Florida firm. Pickett had never contacted that company during his Toy Fair excursion. Marino, meanwhile, had gone out of business. But Pickett patched together a hard-to-follow trail of evidence that involved a low-level Toy Fair official handing his brain-child to Big League Promotions via Marino. Pickett says it shows the parties colluding through the years to keep him out of the mix. He pulled Dun & Bradstreet records for Big League Promotions that he says show the company made “millions” from selling checkers. Pickett took his case to various lawyers, and even had one draft a cease-and-desist letter. But when he’d ask to file a lawsuit about the alleged plagiarism, all attorneys “dropped [the case] like a hot potato,” he says.
“Everybody said to win my case would take years and cost more money than I’ve got,” he says.
Big League Promotions, which provides the games sold on Amazon.com, won’t give him any answers about the origin of its sports-themed checkers. Officials at the company, which also does business as Rico Industries, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Pickett discounts the possibility that somebody else had the same idea as he did.
To anybody pointing out that checkers and NFL are pervasive enough to make their pairing seem unremarkable, Pickett points to a climactic courtroom scene in Flash of Genius. That’s where Kearns, serving as his own attorney, holds up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities and announces that even though Charles Dickens uses the most common of words, he paired them in a way that was all his own.
“He put existing parts together and made it his own work,” says Pickett. “That’s what Robert Kearns did. And I did.”
In the movie, Kearns won his case and got paid. Pickett says he’s still got a plan to get credit for Sports Checkers. He declines to divulge the specifics, but it seems the plan involves the White House and more than one branch of the military. He’s also found a way to use up all those plastic helmets and boards left over from his first run at becoming king of checkers. It’s called “4-Way Checkers,” and is essentially checkers in which four players get six pieces instead of two getting 12.
Pickett plans to produce a version of four-way Checkers, as well as an assortment of paperweight-clocks, to commemorate this fall’s 10th anniversary of the anthrax attacks, which killed two of his co-workers. Instead of NFL logos, every helmet will be adorned with “Remember Brentwood Postal Workers.” He’s registered the phrase with the Library of Congress for a copyright.
“Nobody else is putting these out,” he says.
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